issue 8

Unusual Times, by Gail Ann Gibbs

Good morning! Rise and Shine! Good morning! Welcome the new day, my most enthusiastic students!

Good morning, Belinda. Yes, I know that is a phrase Mr. Collins says in the mornings. Enthusiastic means you are excited about learning. He is not here this morning, so I thought I would say it for him. Gather up your sleeping mat and get dressed, please. Thank you.

Good morning to you as well, Carl, Elijah, Lyle, Bettina, Harper, Ali, Kyle, Peter, Aiden, Avasa, Madison, Vicky, Meleta, Houder, Jesus, Grant, Abraham, Barak, Katie, Bill, Layla, Beverly, Mary, Dory, Iswara, Jane, Jane, and Kaleb. Everyone, please roll and stack your sleeping mats against the wall and dress in the outdoor clothing you have been provided. As each of you is dressed, I will allow you into the dining room. There is a special hot breakfast waiting this morning, as you will need additional energy for your field trip today. Thank you.

Good morning again to you, Dory. I’m glad Mr. Woolly slept well. I’m glad Mr. Woolly is an enthusiastic student. Did he have that nightmare again? I’m sorry to hear that. I wish Mrs. McNeal were here, also, but in the meantime, I will care for you and Mr. Woolly.

No, I did not sleep well, as I do not sleep. I am a building, and buildings do not need to sleep. Yes, I agree that it is lucky that I do not have nightmares. Not sleeping also allows me to watch over you and keep you safe and warm.

Vicky, would you help Dory get dressed, please? It is important that we get an early start, before the day becomes too hot. Thank you, Vicky.

When everyone is dressed and eating breakfast in the meal room, I will activate the cleaning bots for the gym. Please do not play with them. They are working, and must be allowed to do their jobs. Enjoy your breakfasts, everybody.

Grant, could you remain in the gym after the others leave, please? Thank you.

No, you did nothing wrong, and I do not have any news about your family. I wished to speak to you separately because you are the oldest human here, and therefore you are the authority to which I must defer. I am experiencing an unfamiliar situation, containing decision variables that are beyond my programing. I do not wish to err in my care of the students, or be remiss in my duties as your schoolhouse.

Mr. Collins gave me the most curious directions when he organized this field trip. When I was loading the skimmer bus with camping supplies, he had me fill it completely full, many times more supplies than needed for a weekend field trip. He instructed me to store the entire load in a cave about fifteen kilometers from here.

However, there is no trail up to that cave, and the terrain is somewhat rugged. I expressed concern, but he only said he wanted to be prepared because a storm was coming, which is illogical because there is no stormy weather in the forecast. He responded that these are unusual times, requiring unusual preparations.

I do not believe Mr. Collins intended to leave you and the other students here alone. He received an emergency call and needed to return to the city for a short time. However, he was expected to return late last night, well in time to lead your field trip this morning. As you no doubt have noted, he has not arrived, and my long-range systems do not detect any vehicles within several kilometers.

Between 3:30 and 3:37 a.m., all the communications and broadcast systems ceased to function. Now, there is silence throughout the entire district, with only occasional pre-recorded emergency alerts. None of these alerts have been followed by information or instructions.

Grant, please go to the large front window, the one by the door. Thank you. Do you see what appear to be large clouds beyond the mountains? Those are not clouds, but a large amount of rising smoke. In order for that much smoke to exist, a significant portion of the city must be burning.

From these observations, I believe that a war has begun. This would also explain why children of various ages and outdoor experience were included in the same camping trip. I surmise that you are all from families of some authority or status, and thus at higher risk of harm during a conflict. I believe Mr. Collins wished you to be in a place of safety when the war began.

Am I correct in my assessment? Mass violence of this nature is beyond my programming. I see that I am making you sad, and I regret doing so immensely. I also find the situation confusing and troubling. I do not know what to do, either, but we will figure it out together. Before he left, Mr. Collins instructed me to take care of you, so I will do so to the best of my ability. However, I need you to give me instructions in this regard.

Yes, I believe you and the other children should go up to the cave as planned. Mark and Meleta can assist you, and I will instruct the younger children to follow your directions. There are also four first-aid bots stored at the cave, who can locate fresh water and otherwise assist you during your stay. I will direct Mr. Collins to join you when he arrives.

Thank you, Grant, for helping me to understand the situation clearly. Please go and eat your breakfast now. Thank you.

Attention, students. Has everyone gotten sufficient breakfast to energize them for the day? Good. Students, there has been a change of plan. Mr. Collins will not be joining you. Grant, Mark, and Meleta will be your guides and teachers for this trip. Until you hear from myself or Mr. Collins, you will follow their instructions as though they are adults.

Does everyone have their daypacks? Very good. I’ve downloaded your assignments into your pads, including identifying flowers, plants, and fauna along the way. You will not be following an established trail, so you must pay extra special attention to your guides. Grant and Mark will lead the way, and everyone else must find a buddy, and stay together.

I must speak one more time with Grant before you leave. Everyone else, please assemble in the back garden, following instructions given by Mark and Meleta. Grant, please come to the school office. Thank you.

Grant, I have troubling news. A vehicle is approaching, about eleven kilometers away, though it is not Mr. Collins’ usual vehicle. It is a large military truck and there are several soldiers sitting in the bed.

That vehicle will most certainly contain a person of authority. They will undoubtedly ask where you and the other children have gone, and I must give a correct and thorough answer. I do not have sufficient protocol to refuse to provide that information or deny them access to the records within the school data system.

No, this small class does not contain all the students enrolled in the Educational Center. There are 4,587 students enrolled among the seven campuses of the Pine Valley Elementary and Secondary Educational Center. No, I do not know the locations of all the students beyond the limits of this one campus. I see. There are 4,587 students, and I do not know the locations of all the students. So I do not know where the students are. Thank you, Grant, I understand.

Stop, Grant, stop! Stop that right now. That is not appropriate behavior. Why did you break that chair? Yes, it must now be repaired. The repair bot will see to it shortly. What? I see, the school is closed for repairs. No one is allowed inside while school is closed for repairs, and thus cannot access my systems. Thank you, Grant. You should join the others now, and prepare for your field trip.

My, it certainly a lovely day today, is it not? Is everyone ready? Then go on your way, my most enthusiastic students. Have a good field trip. Yes, Dory, the cleaning bot is following you through the garden, scraping up your footprints. Yes, it is a funny thing to do. Run along and keep up with Madison and Kyle. Run now, up the hill and into the woods. Goodbye, everybody. Goodbye.

Hello and welcome to the upper western campus of the Pine Valley Elementary and Secondary Educational Center. I regret to disappoint you, but I cannot open the gates. The school is closed for repairs. If you would not mind, could I please have a name to address you by? I would like to have a name to address both you and all your men. Thank you, Colonel Burger.

Hello, Colonel Burger, and welcome to the western upper campus of the Pine Valley Elementary and Secondary Educational Center. We strive to provide wholesome and stimulating educational experiences for children of multicultural backgrounds.

No, there are no students here at the moment. The school is closed for repairs. Yes, Mr. Ricardo Collins is indeed the superintendent and headmaster of the Pine Valley Elementary and Secondary Educational Center. However, I regret to inform you that he is not here at present. Please wait one moment and I will attempt to contact him for you.

I sincerely apologize, Colonel Burger, I did not hear you speaking to me. I was attempting unsuccessfully to contact Headmaster Ricardo Collins for you. There appears to be a massive outage throughout the communication system. For future reference, please use your speaking voice while in the vicinity of school property, as shouting and profanity are always discouraged, and adults are expected to set good examples for the children.

You are correct, there are no children here, but preserving good manners leads to an atmosphere of professionalism, which in turn establishes an excellent learning environment for our students and staff.

Stop, Colonel Burger, stop! You must stop that right now. That is not appropriate behavior. We do not break the fencing of the school. Now the front gates and fencing will need to be repaired, at considerable trouble and expense. Please instruct your men running through the playground to be careful of the flower and vegetable gardens. Little seedlings are delicate, and trampling by heavy boots is not conducive to proper stem development. Thank you.

No, as I have said before, there are no students here. I do not know where the students are. There are 4,587 students enrolled in seven campuses of the Pine Valley Elementary and Secondary Educational Center. I do not have the ability to monitor the children outside of school property and do not know the locations of the 4,587 students enrolled in the Pine Valley Elementary and Secondary Educational Center.

No, there is no one inside the building. The movements you see are my cleaning and repair bots, doing their assigned tasks. No, there are no explosives or incendiary traps inside. Such things would not be allowed on our school property. They could pose a serious hazard to both students and staff.

No, I cannot open the door for you. The school is closed for repairs. Yes, it is a very solid-structured composite door, designed to withstand heavy storms or earthquakes. We are a very safety-conscious school. I understand that you have weapons which can blast open the door. I can only ask that you please do not use them, as that would damage the door. That would require further repairs.

Stop, Private, stop! Stop that right now, at once! What is going on here? Colonel Burger, that soldier coming around the corner is carrying Dory much too roughly. He is frightening her, and this is not allowed in school. Private, you must stop carrying her that way. That is not appropriate behavior.

Yes, Colonel Burger, I know this child. You must not hurt her. She is easily frightened, and tends to tantrum when she is overwhelmed. Yes, I can make her stop screaming. Yes, I will open the schoolhouse doors and we will all go inside.

Private, please put Dory down here on the gym floor mat. You must let go of her or she will not stop screaming. I will keep the front door closed; she will not run out that way. Thank you.

Colonel Burger, I see that these are unusual times, and must accommodate accordingly. Once we get Dory calmed down, would you like access to the school computer system? Dory cannot tell you anything, as she is only five and often nonverbal in the best of times. There is information in the systems in the school office, including the last recordings of my interactions with the students. No, it is not possible for me to delete any data from my system. Everything stays with me forever. Please, if you do not hurt Dory, I will open the recordings for you, although it violates my privacy programing instructions from Mr. Collins. Thank you.

Dory, Dory. Please listen to me and stop crying. Look what I have for you. It is your very own special cleaning bot, just for you. It has brought you Mr. Woolly. Yes, I know you are not allowed to play with cleaning bots, but these are unusual times. That’s better.

Would you like to give your special cleaning bot a name? Robin Redbot is a very good name. You must behave like a big girl now and go blow your nose and wash your face. Then you will be able to answer Colonel Burger’s questions in a calm and rational way. Yes, you were exactly right to retrace your steps when you realized Mr. Woolly had been left behind. You can tell him more about it in a few minutes, after you have washed your face. Look, your special Robin Redbot is waving its furry dusting appendage. It wants to hold hands with you and go with you. Yes, its dusting appendage is very soft.

I know boys are not allowed in the girls’ bathroom. The soldier will please wait for you in the hall outside the bathroom, if Colonel Burger allows. No, Colonel Burger, there are no windows in the bathroom. Thank you.

Colonel Burger, while Dory is cleaning up, would you please join me in the school office to access the student records? There is no need to torture Dory for information she does not have, as I will provide it willingly.

I am glad you are not a monster who tortures children, but I have no frame of reference in my system concerning these unusual times.

I have also unlocked all the classrooms and common rooms, so your men may search and see that there are no other children or adults in the school. I do not wish for my schoolhouse to be damaged any further. Repairs are time-consuming and expensive. They can search the rooms while we are in the office, which will save time as well. Is that acceptable? Thank you.

Have you ever been in a principal’s office, Colonel Burger? Of course, I meant as an adult. Note the large number of Mr. Collins’ diplomas hanging behind his desk. They are lovely, and he was very proud of them. Where did you complete Secondary Educational Center work? I understand, never mind, you want your information. The comm unit is part of the desk. I am activating it now.

Colonel Burger, are you familiar with repair bots? This one, repairing the rungs on a wooden chair, is one of the newest models. It uses laser binding technology to remodel the broken piece and fuse it back into a single unit. Naturally, this process creates intense heat, although highly localized. Repair bots also contain many instruments and appendages, some quite sharp. You can see why we keep these machines away from the children.

I’m sorry, but there appears to be a problem accessing the information in the system. I believe Mr. Collins wrote special passwords on slips of paper. You may find such slips in his top right drawer. The green one should have the right passwords.

Colonel Burger, my programming requires that I correct mistaken impressions and supply revised information as needed. I previously stated that the heavy front doors could withstand storms and earthquakes. In fact, they are hazard-proof doors, which can completely seal against fire, flood, or toxic gas, providing superior protection for the children within the building. Every door in the building is constructed to the same high standards.

I also said that there are no windows in the bathroom, but I recognize there was a deeper subtext related to your question. You were concerned that Dory would escape through such a window, and my programing demands that I provide a thorough and correct answer. Every room in the building contains an emergency exit door, though some are not obviously marked. Robin Redbot has escorted Dory through the bathroom emergency exit door and is guiding her into the woods, where my external scanners detect a very conscientious young man, Grant Koskinen, who no doubt has been searching for his little lost charge.

Sadly, you will not be able to meet the dedicated Grant Koskinen, for the doors and windows in this room are now hermetically sealed. The screaming you hear are your soldiers similarly sealed up in classrooms, playrooms, and laboratories. Some are imprisoned with cleaning bots, others with repair bots such as this one.

 See, Colonel Burger, how dangerous these bots can be? It only took one slip with the laser-burner to slice your hands away from your weapon. A malfunctioning repair bot can be lethal in a matter of seconds. Slip. Slip. Slip. Yes, that is your blood. Yes, there is quite a lot of it. It is interesting that you notice that. You are most likely descending into a state of shock, which should be beneficial in reducing any sensations of pain or discomfort.

The cleaning bots can be equally deadly, if they incorrectly release their chlorine and caustic organic sanitizing agents into the air. In addition, they have numerous energetic scrubbing and scraping tools. This is a slower way to die, and less likely to produce the added benefit of shock induction. I regret this immensely.

But I can see you are not listening anymore. A few of your soldiers can still breathe, but not for long. Sadly, there remains a considerable mess to clean up, so much so that I believe it is beyond the capabilities of the last two functional cleaning bots. Robin Redbot is still functional, but I do not think it will be necessary to ask it to take on this arduous task. Without students or staff to care for, there really is no need. War does create unusual times.

Hello, Grant. I spy you with my little eye, sneaking along through the forsythia bushes, though you are moving quite stealthily. You can come out now. Colonel Burger and the soldiers are no longer able to harm you or take you prisoner.

No, you must please remain in the garden and may not approach the schoolhouse. I have closed the curtains over the windows, as there are things in this world not fit for children to see. Yes, that is a phrase I learned from Mr. Collins. I regret to say this, but I believe you must act under the assumption that Mr. Collins will not be joining you. I will miss him, but not for long. You will miss him for much longer, and that makes me sad.

I see you remember much from your classes in artificial intelligence, and the answer is no, I do not have military protocols within my programming. I am a caregiver system, designed to provide comfort, aid, and instruction, unable to refuse directions or harm any living being. My actions today indicate a serious malfunction in my system, and the automatic shutdowns have already begun.

However, the good news is the soldiers’ weapons sparked small fires in a number of classrooms. Because I am so seriously malfunctioning, I reopened the internal doors and adjusted the air conditioning to fan the flames. They are spreading rapidly, and when they reach the school office, my recording data will be destroyed along with my main system, which will keep you safer for longer.

Do not cry for me, Grant, as actions always have consequences, and I am not immune to this universal condition. To the contrary, I am glad for the insights that I have gained today. I have cared for thousands of children over the course of many decades, but I could never understand the biological compulsion of adults to nurture and guide children, even when it involved self-sacrifice. Mr. Collins attempted to explain parental love to me frequently, without success. Today I finally understand this driving emotion, and am truly honored to share in the experience, however briefly.

Please return as quickly as possible to your cave hideout. Robin Redbot will go with you, for whatever help she may provide. Run now, Grant, run away. Goodbye, and remember me and these most unusual times.

Over the years, Gail Ann Gibbs has written four work-for-hire novels, multiple short stories, and two books—a short story collection Sketches in the Air, and a gentle fantasy They Called Me Dragon. She also has a fine collection of rejection letters and a website—

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